Why Washington’s Metro may be even worse than the T

Washington's Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.
Washington’s Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Not long ago I had to navigate the sort of public-transportation meltdown that is familiar to any Bostonian. The subway wasn’t running, and I had some important meetings to get to. I took a Lyft into the city. After my meetings, still no subway—so I took advantage of the nice weather and walked.

Ah, the MBTA. Except this wasn’t the T. Instead, it was Metro, the fast, clean, and—until recently—reliable rail system that serves Washington, DC, and its environs.

Those of us who rely on the T have long considered Metro to be the very model of what a modern subway system is supposed to look like. It may be 40 years old, but compared to Boston’s 1890s-vintage patchwork of subway lines and streetcars, it’s brand spanking new.

Now, though, both systems are suffering from what happens after many years of chronic disinvestment. Believe it or not, the problems facing Metro may be more acute. The infrastructure needs of both systems are huge, yet the political will to meet those needs is lacking. And if two cities like Boston and Washington—a regional hub and the nation’s hub—are behind the eight ball, what hope is there for the Buffalos and the Worcesters, the Detroits and the New Bedfords?

Metro’s most recent woes began on March 14, when an electrical fire broke out near the McPherson Square station. Because of similarities to a fire last year in which one person died and 84 were hospitalized because of smoke inhalation, the folks in charge decided to shut down the entire system all day on March 16 in order to conduct extensive safety inspections. Metro’s many woes—which include a crash that claimed nine lives in 2009—made it to the front page of the New York Times this week.

As it turned out, that was the first of two days for which I had scheduled interviews in downtown Washington. To my relief, the roads were not gridlocked, and Lyft didn’t take advantage of the crisis by jacking up prices. My three-mile walk from K Street through Georgetown, over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and back to my hotel in Rosslyn was pleasant—it was a warm late-winter day, and the cherry blossoms were out.

Metro reopened the next day. But get this: The system’s leadership is now considering shutting down entire lines for six months at a time in order to carry out long-overdue repairs. A Post editorial thundered:

Do they want to scare commuters into expecting the worst so they won’t complain when the shutdown is only three months? Are they trying to rattle the federal and local governments into ponying up more money? Or are they really so cavalier about disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Washington-area residents?

By comparison, our own MBTA looks like the gold standard. Sure, we put up with delays, cancellations, fires, and Orange Line passengers being forced to climb out windows. But I can’t remember a time when the entire system was shut down for a day except for extreme weather. And the idea of closing a line for six months is just too awful to contemplate.

And yet. Gabrielle Gurley, who knows both the Boston and Washington systems well (she was an editor at CommonWealth Magazine in Boston and is now an editor at The American Prospect in DC), insists the MBTA is actually in worse shape than Metro, and that it’s only a matter of luck that we’ve been spared the worst. Noting that the MBTA’s maintenance backlog is about $7 billion, Gurley writes:

For all that Washingtonians grumble about their 40-year-old Metro, it remains an engineering marvel (albeit a sputtering one) and a tourist attraction in its own right. Boston’s subway system, the country’s oldest, opened in 1897. It barely gets commuters around the region on sunny days.

David Alpert, who blogs at a site called Greater Greater Washington, wrote recently: “Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency’s failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife’s edge where a small mistake has big consequences.”

That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here in Greater (Greater?) Boston, Governor Charlie Baker deserves credit for making at least some strides toward reforming the MBTA’s broken culture by establishing a Fiscal Management and Control Board to oversee the system.

But the T needs a massive infusion of funds in addition to management controls. And as former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi wrote for WGBH News, the 9.3 percent fare increase recently approved by the T not only squeezes money out of the wrong people but isn’t even remotely adequate.

Safe, reliable public transportation is good for the economy and good for the environment. Yet in both Boston and Washington, government seems unwilling to do what it takes to get it right.

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Why flat rates make sense for public transportation

Photo (cc) by matthrono.
Photo (cc) by matthrono.

Transportation officials are considering a new high-tech MBTA fare system that could, among other things, be used to charge you more if you are traveling a longer distance. Such a system is already in effect on the commuter rail lines, but not on the subway or buses.

Superficially, such a system makes sense. On the other hand, the farther you travel via public transportation, the more you are benefiting the rest of us in terms of relieving road congestion and reducing air pollution.

Back when I lived in Danvers, I would occasionally take public transportation. Occasionally, that is, because it was too expensive to do it every day. Parking at the Beverly train station cost $5. A round-trip train ticket was $15. And the subway to and from Northeastern was another $5 or so. That’s $25 a day—an enormous expense, especially if you commute every day.

By contrast, I can now walk to the West Medford train station and pay $4.20 for a round-trip ticket. With subway fare, it comes to less than $10. Yet the social and environmental benefit of taking public transportation from West Medford is considerably less than it is compared to the North Shore.

In a perfect world, you’d pay a flat rate for all forms of public transportation. I realize we don’t live in a perfect world, but the benefits of a flat rate are something I hope T officials at least think about.

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Is this any way to run a railroad?

I’ve tried to be optimistic about Gov. Charlie Baker’s management of the MBTA. But there are some ominous signs that he’s less interested in creating a world-class public transportation system than he is in reducing costs for his non-T-riding supporters. Three examples:

    • As Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung notes, officials are getting ready to pull the plug on late-night service, which she calls “expensive, impractical, and yet aspiring and completely necessary.” (She compares them to Manolo Blahniks, which Google tells me are shoes.)
    • The MBTA has decided to cancel art works that were going to be installed along the Green Line Extension, a project that may cost $1 billion more than first thought. It’s a short-sighted move that indicates we don’t care about our public spaces.
    • The new commuter-rail schedule announced by Keolis includes significant cuts in service. A number of legislators have written to the T and Keolis to express their concerns. I had thought the reworked schedule was aimed at coming up with a rational timetable that Keolis could actually meet — not at drastically reducing the number of trains.

People are moving to the city and the inner suburbs because transportation from farther away — roads and highways as well as trains and buses — has fallen apart. Baker’s agenda raises the specter that it’s going to become harder and harder to get around in urban neighborhoods as well.

A wicked smart idea to fund public transportation

640px-MBTA_Green_Line_B
2006 photo (cc) by Adam E. Moreira.

The Boston Globe’s Tim Logan has an important story today about an emerging new paradigm for funding public transportation: charging a fee to property owners who will benefit from it.

It’s already working in some areas, Logan reports. Columnist Shirley Leung notes that Steve Wynn is paying a substantial subsidy to improve Orange Line access to his proposed Everett casino (which I still hope will never get off the ground, but that’s another matter).

My wicked smart Facebook community has already been talking about using such fees to pay for the $1 billion extra that it’s going to cost to build the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford. It sounds to me like a great idea, especially since — as state Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack tells Logan — developers are already assessed fees for road improvements. I’d rather see them pay for a new MBTA station than a new interchange.

As always, we need to avoid unintended consequences. There’s already a danger that small, independent businesses will be forced out as property values soar. Perhaps they could be exempt from whatever fee structure the state ultimately decides to adopt.

Why you should keep your vintage CharlieCard

CharlieCard_800You can’t make this up.

Because I can be slow on the uptake, I thought MBTA CharlieCards were only for those with monthly passes. A friend told me otherwise, and a T worker at North Station gave me one.

I tried to register it online and got rejected. When I called the 800 number, a friendly employee explained that the online system only works with older cards. “Would you like me to send you an old one?” she asked. Sure, I said, and a few days later one arrived in the mail. I just registered online and added $20 to it without any problem. And the brand-new card sits unused.

Unbelievable.

Debating the merits of MBTA expansion

In today’s Boston Globe, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and I debate the merits of expanding the region’s public transportation system following the winter of #MBTApocalypse — a no-motion catastrophe that is not yet over.

I actually don’t think Curtatone and I disagree all that much. We both reject the “reform before revenue” silliness (we need both). And I certainly think expansion is a good idea — some day. But we’ve got to fix the system we have before plunging ahead with ambitious new plans.

Monday update: While we’re talking about MBTA expansion, let’s think about what kind of expansion would give us the biggest bang for our buck. The Globe reports today that there’s not nearly enough parking at T stations, forcing people to drive to Boston even though they’d rather take public transportation — as anyone who’s ever arrived at Oak Grove much after 7 a.m. can attest. Building parking garages isn’t cheap, but they also generate a lot of revenue.

In West Medford, #MBTApocalypse hits a new low

IMG_1668
A train arrives in West Medford — but not this morning.

One of the most frustrating aspects of #MBTApocalypse is that is that we mere mortals who rely on the commuter rail have no idea whether to blame Keolis, the T or some combination thereof.

For me, though, the entire experience hit rock bottom this morning in what I think was an unusually shameful (or maybe I should say shameless) episode. I walked to the West Medford train station to catch the 8:58 to North Station. There were a couple of dozen people waiting. The electronic sign that normally provides updates was out. And there was No Train.

The T app said it had broken down and was stuck in Wilmington. But there were no further updates. We had no way of knowing whether a train would be showing up any moment or if, instead, all trains were backed up behind it. I asked the flagman; despite being equipped with a walkie-talkie, he didn’t know. A half-hour later I walked back home and drove in to work. I still don’t know when or if the 8:58 ever arrived.

It’s been two weeks since the last major snowstorm, and Keolis and/or the T still can’t stick to the reduced schedule that will be in effect for another month. Meanwhile, the economy suffers and the roads are choked with drivers who’d rather be taking public transportation. There’s no longer any excuse that I want to listen to. Just fix it.

Revs. Rivers and Wall’s $105,000 ‘invoice’

Adrian Walker has an absolutely stunning column on page one of The Boston Globe today. He reports that two well-known African-American ministers, Eugene Rivers and Bruce Wall, recently submitted a $105,000 “invoice” for services (not) rendered to Keolis North America, the company that was recently awarded the commuter-rail contract by the MBTA.

Rivers and Wall are reportedly pushing Keolis on diversity issues. Last December, Martine Powers of the Globe reported that Wall and other ministers were criticizing Keolis’ record and were concerned about the French company’s behavior during the Nazi era.

Whether Rivers and Wall were engaging in a piece of ill-advised political theater (as seems likely) or if there is something more nefarious going on, I’m sure we can look forward to learning more in the days ahead.

Presenting the 13th annual Phoenix Muzzle Awards

Just in time for your Fourth of July celebrations, we present the 13th annual Muzzle Awards, published in the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Portland and Providence.

Starting in 1998, I’ve been rounding up enemies of free speech and personal liberties in New England, based on news reports over the previous year. For the past several years my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate has been writing a sidebar about free speech and the lack thereof on campus.

Yes, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department makes the list for his failure to understand that you shouldn’t arrest someone who’s done nothing wrong other than mouth off to you in his own home. So does former Newton mayor David Cohen, who should not seek a second career as a newspaper editor. So does the MBTA, a hardy perennial.

But my personal favorite is the Portland Press Herald, whose editorial page came out in support of a proposal by the Falmouth Town Council to clamp down on the right of residents to speak out at council meetings. When the council itself unanimously voted against the proposal several weeks later, citing free-speech concerns, the newspaper found itself in the bizarre position of showing less regard for the First Amendment than elected officials.

On Friday at 9 p.m., I’ll join Dan Rea of WBZ Radio (AM 1030) to talk about the Muzzles and anything else that might come up.

You learn something new every day

And here I thought the Orange Line stopped in back of Northeastern and the Green Line in front. And that Oak Grove was the closest station to Media Nation World Headquarters.